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NIGERIA: EndSARS Uprising: A Story of Leadership in Pain and Anguish

Folabi Jimoh
Lagos, Nigeria

On 12 September 2001, the day after the ground-shaking terrorist attacks on America and its physical symbols of global power and preeminence, the Daily Telegraph of London wrote a Leader aptly titled, ‘This is the Tempest Long Foretold’. The title, without any loss of meaning, could very well be transposed in time and space to describe Nigeria’s two-week street uprising by the country’s young people—this tempest that raged across the country had been long in the making, and could have been predicted by anyone with average intelligence. And by an uncanny historical coincidence, the protests culminated in a bloody crackdown by the Nigerian Army on Tuesday 20th October, 2020. The 9/11 attacks on America also occurred on a Tuesday. The same day of the week, though set apart by space and time, connects the two countries together in being a day of tragic bloodbath, a day in which the blood of innocent citizens was shed—a veritable black Tuesday. The ironic difference in this tragic experience, shared by the two nations, is that in the case of America, its citizens were attacked on its soil by foreign adversaries. But it was Nigeria’s Army that turned its guns on unarmed Nigerians, on Nigerian soil! 

The trajectory of the events that led to the 9/11 attacks on America have been well documented. In the case of Nigeria, a key factor in explaining how the bloody Tuesday came about is the notorious unit popularly called SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), a specialised contingent of the Nigeria Police Force, (NPF). Viewed in its narrow perspective, the story of SARS is the story of police misconduct and brutality. But in its wider socio-political dimension, it is the story of state dysfunction, misrule, and bad leadership. A rather important explanatory strand of the complex series of events that culminated in the killings of peaceful protesters at a toll plaza located in the high-brow Lekki suburb of Lagos.

Ongoing Protest to EndSARS Brutality in Nigeria.Tobi Oshinnaike via Unsplash.

In the course of several years, the SARS had acquired a notoriety for monstrosity. Set up in 1992 as a specialised unit to deal with a rising tide of crimes and criminalities in the land, the SARS was supposed to have the enablement deemed necessary for quick, prompt and efficient response to such morbid crimes within its remit—essentially covering armed robbery, kidnapping, and sundry other crimes involving firearms. Thus, the unit was given some privileged operational autonomy than the regular police units—including the use of unmarked cars, wearing mufti for undercover operations and intelligence gathering and leading to possible arrest. The unit had local command in each of the 36 states of Nigeria headed by an Officer-in-Charge, an OC. All the state OCs reported to a Commissioner of Police (CP) at the police headquarters in Abuja who in turn reported to the Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Operations. However, these crime-bursting operational privileges were soon converted by the SARS operatives to other uses than crime-fighting and crime-control. They became effective ways and means for carrying out nefarious activities in the name of law-enforcement. Legion is the list of evils that people, especially young Nigerians, have lived through in their daily encounters with SARS operatives. The experiences of Nigerians in their hands have ranged from arbitrary arrests and detentions, to extortions, rapes, tortures and extrajudicial murders of both criminal suspects and innocent victims—the list is lengthy! Amnesty International, Nigeria, along with other organisations, has done detailed work on police and SARS atrocities in the country. For instance, it is pointed out in its June 2020 report (p.9) that:

‘Since 2016, Amnesty International has documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS. Most victims are young men between the ages of 18 and 35, poor and from vulnerable groups, and are tortured either to extract information and “confessions” or as punishment for their alleged offences. Amnesty International found that torture is a routine and systemic part of police investigation in SARS; that many SARS stations use designated “torture chambers” – special interrogation rooms commonly used for torturing suspects.’

Similarly, A Nigerian online newspaper, TheCable, in its June 30 2020 edition, published its study in which it was revealed that 92 Nigerians lost their lives to extrajudicial killings by the police in just less than a year, between March 2019 and February 2020.

The Rise of #EndSARS Protests

For years, the complaints about the unit have largely been treated with cavalier responses, even outright disdain, by both the police authorities as well as the political leadership, with the most recent popular examples being the largely twitter-based anti-SARS protest under the same hashtag, some three years previously. The twitter protests have since become regular rituals through which the youth voice their nasty experiences in the hands of the unit. But each time the responses were the same—empty promises or disdainful cosmetic reforms that have no practical impact on the victims. This has had two crucial effects. On the one hand, the hapless victims of SARS brutalities, left with no recourse for redress, learned to bear the pains inflicted on them with stoic resignation. The operatives of the unit, on the other hand, became sadistically emboldened in their criminalities, having been serially rewarded with official impunity. This has invested the SARS agents with a sense of official endorsement as reflected in their often-repeated boasts of invulnerability to their victims. Typical of this are statements such as: ‘I will waste you and nothing will happen’ or ‘I will kill you and they will only make some noises on twitter’. This was underscored by Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International, Nigeria: ‘The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officer to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.

Indeed, there are many instances of serving and retired police officers who are publicly known to have perpetrated horrific human rights abuses being rewarded with career promotions or even political appointments. A very recent example in this regard is the notorious SARS officer, James Nwafor who, after his retirement was appointed as security adviser, in 2018, to the current Governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano. He was only sacked during the two-week #EndSARS protests. Nwafor, during his infamous career, had been serially and publicly accused, with documented evidence, of being responsible for numerous abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Consequently, a reign of police terror that had long been instituted became intensified in the baleful activities of the SARS which became, in public imagination and consciousness, the overt embodiment of police brutality and the repressive violence of the Nigerian State in relation to its citizens. The effect is that Nigerians have had a lot more to fear from the police in general—and the SARS in particular—than the criminals they were supposedly being protected from. In a fundamental sense, the SARS is an experiential metaphor for the unchanging nature of the Nigerian State from its colonial precursor and the transition and transmission of its oppressive reign from foreign to indigenous ruling elites. So, it was not a question of whether but when the unheeded voices of protests on the twitter theatre would spill over onto the streets in the form of marching bodies! The #EndSARS uprising was an inevitable tempest that had been long foretold.

The current generation of young people, mainly millennials, who are the prime targets of SARS harassments, extortion and other atrocities, are far removed in time from their forebears who lived through the colonial experience of State violence, repression, abuse, expropriation, exploitation and various other forms of oppression. But in their daily encounters, they share basically the same experiences of routinised violence and egregious violations, by the State through the SARS. It was the same for the generations that preceded them since Nigeria got its flag independence 60 years ago. The activist creator of the Afro-Beat music, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died over two decades ago, gave a powerful voice to his generation’s experience of State repression and police brutality. In those insightful lyrics of enduring relevance, he eloquently articulated what it meant to encounter the State and its agents of repression. ‘Police dey come, army dey come’, he sang in his inimitable pidgin English. ‘… twenty minutes later, army don disappear, police don go away… them leave sorrow, tears and blood, them regular trademark.’ That experience resonates even more trenchantly today as we witnessed in the Lekki Toll Plaza bloodbath. The unceasing reality of sorrowful, tearful and bloody encounters with the State by citizens is a common denominator that connects different generations of Nigerians at the level of experience. It is no accident therefore that the latest #EndSARS protest, albeit started, spearheaded, organised and driven by the youth, had such a groundswell of support across demographic and gender lines. Even members of the Nigerian diaspora rose in solidarity in their different climes of abode, to protest and reject the continuation of an unpleasant experience to which they can intimately relate—it is their experience too. The Nigerian State is a common tragedy, or tragedy of the commons, for all Nigerians except the tiny minority who control its levers of power. And there is hardly a more effective area to experience that tragedy than in policing. At the most elemental level, policing is a vital area of intimate experience for the citizens in which the State is required to either vindicate its very existence, or prove its irrelevance and nuisance value—the Nigerian State has reaffirmed the latter over and over again.

In essence, the story of policing in Nigeria is intimately woven into the country’s intractable crisis of State and leadership. Considered in isolation as an organisation, the NPF is a quintessential example of a rotten entity—little different from an organised crime syndicate, but with the crucial exception that it is backed up by state power. The Nigeria Police is pervaded by all the familiar ills and misconduct: indiscipline, corruption, bribery, lack of professionalism, dishonesty, poor training, awful remuneration, poor equipment, and low morale among other catalogue of malaise. In a report titled: ‘The 2nd Corruption Survey Report in Nigeria’, a 2019 corruption survey by the Government’s own National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the NPF was deemed the most corrupt organisation in the country. It held the same slot in a similar report released by the Bureau two years earlier. The NPF is for all practical purposes a broken organisation.

As an organisational entity with a life of its own and its own internal dynamics, it is an agency that inducts its recruits and members into its corrupt mode of existence, and imbues them with its organisational value system. Thus the idea of a few bad apples that its top hierarchy, as well as members of the ruling elite, including the president, use to constantly excuse its failures, is a baseless distraction from, and distortion of, the reality, in order to cloak their own failure and irresponsibility. The NPF has developed into a monstrous entity that makes honest and professional conduct practically impossible for its personnel. So at best, the organisation can only tolerate ‘very few good apples’ at a time, and only for a while, before they also become rotten. For an illustration, entry training is a crucial factor in preparing any new recruit for their socialisation into the existing culture of policing and their eventual experience in the field. In Nigeria it is public knowledge that the overall conditions of existence in our police colleges have become so degenerate over the years that going through police training in them has effectively become a systematic process of dehumanisation. Consequently, if socialisation as an unceasing process that shapes, and is shaped by, human experience is any guide, then there is very little prospect that any normal human being will emerge from training in the country’s police academies without having some serious cognitive reorientation and mind reconstruction in ways that predictably results in the sort of heinous conducts with which the Nigeria Police has been associated.

Worst still is the fact that the conditions of service for serving NPF members is nothing short of institutionalised tyranny. Policemen and women are among the most poorly paid public servants in Nigeria, with nothing in the form of medical insurance despite the hazards of their job. In a recent interview with the BBC Media Action Naija, Abdulmajid Ali, Deputy Inspector General of Police, made the frank admission that: ‘If you look at the Nigeria Police pay, in relation to other organisations, it’s nothing to write home about.’ Furthermore, the structures and conditions of their official accommodation are an assault on human decency, and are palpably unfit for human habitation. It gets worse still because not all of them are even lucky enough to be accommodated in these decrepit facilities—they resort to living in what can best be described as squatter camps. Ali confirms this further: ‘We don’t have enough police barracks. If you go round … you’d be surprised at seeing the police barracks. The blocks are dilapidated, the buildings are falling. No proper care and attention are being paid to the police barracks.’ Even despite their miserable remuneration, they are made to buy their own uniforms and kits, as this is not provided for them. It is often the case that running costs for police stations are either too meagre or non-existent, that officers usually ask complainants to pay for stationeries in order to have their statements documented for investigation. Yet, it is these same people who have been reduced, collectively and individually, to a sub-human level of existence that the Nigerian ruling class tasks with the arduous job of policing and protecting the citizens. It does not take a genius to be able to imagine what they would do with the arms given to them to do their job under the circumstance. It is no surprise, therefore, that the pent-up anger and frustration of ordinary Nigerians have spilled onto the streets in a massive uprising. In Nigeria, the idea that Nigeria has a rogue Police Force, or a unit thereof, is not totally accurate. Rather, it is the State and the country’s leadership that have gone rogue on the citizens, with the police merely being a tool of enacting their roguery.

Against this background, the question of police brutality in Nigeria has to be properly understood in its appropriate wider context of the decades-old, unceasing misrule by the country’s ruling class. Accordingly, the #EndSARS protests that began on Twitter, and moved onto the streets only to snowball into a national uprising and a global movement in a matter of few days, is about the serial misrule, the insupportable oppression, and the grossly incompetent leadership of a predatory and ruthless ruling class that has run the Nigerian State in pretty much the same mould as its colonial precursor from which the NPF had its origin in 1930. It is a perturbing reminder of Claude Ake’s exposition that the indigenous ruling elite was only interested in inheriting the colonial State, rather than in transforming it—for the purpose of engendering development and progressively improving the lives of the people.

Defying the rulers’ traditional mode of crisis management

In callous disregard for the well-being and welfare of Nigerians, the ruling elite has used State and its resources as a vehicle for wealth accumulation, avaricious self-enrichment and entitled self-aggrandizement while simultaneously subjecting the overwhelming majority of the people to marginal existence, bare life, misery and hopelessness. Almost invariably, every attempt by the people to demand improvement in their lives and governance has been met with cynical condescension, reckless violence and other forms of mindless cruelty. This leadership failure is the fundamental underpinning of police brutality—a crude means of keeping the people in perpetual subjection. This is underscored by the fact that in spite of Nigeria being grossly under-policed (just under 400,000 police personnel to a population of 200 million), due to deliberate chronic under-funding, about half of that number is deployed to protecting the country’s political leaders and members of their families. It explains why the problem has consistently been sidestepped despite series of past agitations for police reform, because it stands to reason that Nigeria’s political leaders see the police as their own tool of protection against—and oppression of—the masses. This has also worked to generate in the people a deficit of trust sufficient to last for a lifetime. That’s how we got into the #EndSARS crisis and the ensuing bloody crackdown by the Army. The only difference this time is that this particular uprising has features that defy the rulers’ traditional mode of crisis management–suppression, repression, deflection, tokenism, insincerity and empty promises.

Firstly, Nigeria has had a youth bulge that comprises a millennial generation which, despite having known only leadership failure by the country’s ruling elite, has risen up stoutly to the challenges of its time by pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. It is a generation that is energetic, brave, creative, intelligent, irrepressible, IT-savvy, and conversant with and well-connected to the wider world around it. Secondly, the 21st century also happens to be a world of the Internet, the android phone, and social media—new tools of technology that have transformed our world in fundamental ways. Today the world is significantly more connected and interconnected in ways that considerably undermine the near-unfettered room for misrule that misbehaving political elites used to enjoy behind the hard cordon of sovereign state borders. Along with this is the considerable erosion of the once expansive power to hide evidence and cover up misdeeds. The android phone is a mobile, tiny device for documentation and revelation of events, in real time, and to a global audience that constitutes a powerful pressure lever and countervailing centre of soft power. Thirdly, is the fact that the villagisation of humankind the world over has become a useful resource that makes it increasingly more difficult for national ruling elites to indulge in, and easily brush off, incidents of egregious human rights abuse in any nation across the world.

These factors are key parts of a shifting power dynamics that has produced a more conscious and daring generation of young people that are sufficiently self-confident and fearless to say ‘enough is, indeed, enough’! However, shocked and panicked by the wrath, anger and daring of the products of its own failure, the Nigerian ruling class, in a re-enactment of its well-practiced colonial grip on power and misuse of the crude implements of state violence, unleashed terror on the country’s unarmed young people who were harmlessly protesting the unceasing ruination and subversion of their future. As they were being shot at with life rounds by their own military, they waved the national flag and sang the national anthem in a defiant display of patriotism and love for their country. The valiant conducts of the Lekki Toll Gaza protesters, even in the face of death, make nonsense of the contrived and desperate attempts by the powers that be to discredit them as miscreants, hoodlums, and looters—tactics that are consistent with the political economy of repression at which Nigerian leaders have become quite adept.  In a cruel twist of irony that probably eluded the government of the day, unnamed citizens peacefully protesting their everyday encounter with police brutality were met with a higher-order violence from a military that has miserably failed to protect them from a decade-old deadly insurgency and multiple other terrorist invasions from within and outside the country’s borders.

On October 20th 2020, Nigerian Police and Army Forces harassed, harmed and killed numerous civilians while, denying their civil and legal rights to protest on the streets – leading to many Nigerians Across the world to come out and protest after SARS only a few days ago was dissolved. Outputting their excessive disappointment in the country even after Independence was given by the British over 60 Years ago. Ehimetalor Akhere via Unsplash.

The clear message from the Lekki bloodletting is that the Muhammadu Buhari Government, despite its constant refrain to the contrary, is not an agent of change with any intention to positively transform the Nigerian State’s repressive and predatory character into a developmental, people-oriented and people-centred state. The government’s message will continue to reverberate as the victims of the shooting continue to recount yet another bloody encounter with the State and a leadership that refuses to embrace democratic and civilised norms in responding to legitimate demands by citizens. Voice of America (VOA) reported an eyewitness account to the shooting, Akinbosola Ogunsanya, who said soldiers pulled into the Lekki Toll Plaza and began shooting after the lights were turned off. He said there were multiple casualties at the scene.

Another eyewitness, Anthony Ogbe, who sustained gunshot wound to the chest and receiving treatment at the Grandville Medical and Laser Centre, Lekki, recalled clearly that: ‘It was a soldier that shot me at Lekki. I was rejected from different hospitals before I got admitted here and my life was saved … I was taken to the theatre so that they could bring the blood that is in my chest out, and that is what is passing through this pipe. I thought I had died, because my blood was just gushing out like pump. I never knew I would still be alive.’

Another eyewitness and one of the prominent drivers of the protests, Catherine Udeh, a lady popularly known as DJ Switch, gave a public account of her experience in the eye of the storm. In her roughly nine-minute video, she recounted her close shave with death from a soldier’s gunshot that killed a boy who had heroically used his body to shield her from a direct hit. She confirmed accounts given by other eyewitnesses about waving the country’s flag while being shot at: ‘ … we would run, we would come back, we would run. And the only thing we fought with was our flags. We would sit on the floor and raise our hands up, waving our flags and singing the national anthem.’ She also displayed some of the spent shells they collected for evidentiary purposes because, according to her, the soldiers were also picking up their shells, apparently to conceal evidence of the shooting. She added that: ‘The military, they were there, on Nigerian soil, killing Nigerian citizens. The police and their SARS-like people came, doing the same thing; aiming and shooting … they were pointing the guns at us and shooting live bullets.’ And in an emotion-laden voice, she asks: ‘Who takes live bullets to a protest. Who does that?’ She confirmed the death of 15 people at the scene of the shooting and said she regretted that they (protesters) carried the bodies and dropped them at the feet of the soldiers to show them the evidence of what they were doing. However, the soldiers simply put the corpses into the vans and took them away, which makes it easier for the Army authorities to deny the killings, since the survivors have no dead bodies to show as evidence.

However, the dishonest conduct of the Army—which follows a pattern—and the president’s refusal to even give such a monumental national tragedy a mention in his address to the nation, after the fact, all go to affirm the character of the country’s political rulers and their contemptuous disregard for the lives of the ordinary people which they have treated, all too often, as expendable. Nevertheless, the #EndSARS uprising and the resultant Lekki bloodbath is sure to remain a powerful memorial to the valour and fortitude of a young generation that made a stand against the unyielding mismanagement of their lives by a failed leadership. From its remorseless posture so far, and the visible attempt being made to clamp down on any dissent, the Nigerian ruling class may have yet again succeeded in its habituated brutal repression of opposition to its ruinous rule. But a valuable lesson from this crisis is that the political leaders have been served with a notice that it will no longer be business as usual with regard to their wanton disregard for the lives and future of the teeming millions in their care, especially the predominantly youthful population. And it is a lesson they would be well-advised to heed.

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